Folks who live along the Islands Highway Corridor, especially those who live east of U.S. Highway 17, gathered together Tuesday night at the Dorchester Village Civic Center. At the meeting a committee was selected to represent the East-enders in their quest to resolve the recent and sudden change in their fire and emergency services, the closure of Eastern District Fire Rescue.
Retired EDFR Fire Chief, Joe Martin, said he informed Liberty County officials 18 months ago that he planned to retire on Dec. 31, 2018. He said he gave the county the proper 30-day written notice to end their contract which meant the stations, at Sunbury and Colonel’s Island, went officially offline at midnight. He added that he gave different options to the county before the contract ended, however, the county never responded.
“They did nothing,” he said.
News of the station closures quickly spread on social media. For some, it was the first time they were made aware of the situation. Life-long residents said they were aware of the ongoing problem and were bothered by the county’s refusal to address the issue, saying it was wrong and possibly negligent. Some voiced their concerns about a possible 45 minute response time and a rate hike on their home insurance.
One resident asked whether the county could be sued if someone was harmed or died due to the longer response time and the commissioners,’ “decision of not paying attention to this matter.”
Last week, at the county commissioners meeting, a motion to enter into a lease agreement with EDFR was approved. The agreement would permit the county to lease vehicles, equipment and buildings.
“But even if the county leases everything you still need boots on the ground,” Martin said. He was stressing the point that the formerly all-volunteer fire stations should be manned with fulltime paid staff like the fire stations in Hinesville.
“That should have happened 15 years ago,” Martin said.
No one from the county was invited to the meeting, however, Liberty County Administrator Joey Brown told the Courier last week, that Sunbury and Colonel’s Island residents would still receive fire and EMS services through the county until the implementation of the county-wide fire plan. The assistance would be coming from the station at Lake George roughly 15-17 miles from east end communities.
Brown also told the Courier that the county fire plan calls for the construction of one new station while retaining the current EDFR facilities as substations.
Thursday Brown said that as soon as the lease agreement is signed, Liberty Fire Service would be able to float their 10 paid fire fighters between the Lake George and the east end stations to ensure adequate protection and reasonable response times.
At the community meeting Martin mentioned that, years ago, the EDFR stations responded to calls as far west as the Holmestown community. He also said the EDFR was expected to respond to emergencies at the Trade Port East industrial complex despite the fact that the land is owned by the Liberty County Development Authority.
“Why doesn’t the LCDA pay into the fire plan if they own the land?” someone shouted from the group.
The Courier has since learned that the LCDA is a non-profit and under the current plan no local non-profit organization pays into the fire plan.
The group was in agreement, however, that the businesses at Trade Port East are allies facing the same circumstance as the residents.
According to a letter from east end resident Paul Krebs, Liberty County receives $1.2 million in insurance premium taxes which goes into the general fund. At the meeting he stood up and said he questioned how much was earmarked for fire and rescue and also questioned how the county was spreading and spending those funds.
In his letter, Krebs predicted that the Insurance Service Office rating (ISO) currently a 4, will likely increase to 10 due to lack of nearby emergency service facilities. He said that could result in a 200 percent increase to the homeowners on the east end of the county.
However, Brown said that once Liberty Fire Service enters into the lease agreement, it is more than likely that the ISO rating will remain the same. He said the ISO rating process is extremely complex, would not change overnight and includes many variables.
He said once Liberty Fire Service enters into the agreement and the county moves forward with the build out of the fire plan and staffing, if fiscally possible, it may help the ISO ratings, in some areas.
Brown added that the five road mile criteria is just one aspect of receiving an ISO rating but in regards to that, “It may not be financially prudent to think about constructing stations every five miles apart but rather to focus on strategic placement based on current and future call volumes and resources,” he said.
At the community gathering the group briefly tossed around ideas that included annexation from the county and/or incorporating and forming their own municipality.
But knowing that would not resolve the immediate problem and would not be cost effective at this present time, the group quickly refocused on a fire protection plan, or in this case, what they consider to be the lack of such a plan from the county.
One angry resident suggested that the commissioners should sell the county owned land, currently slated to develop a dock, and use the money to fund a permanent fire plan for the east end.
After some bantering back-and-forth the majority were in agreement that the issue needs to be addressed immediately and directly to the elected county commissioners.
“The entire board needs to feel the pressure,” Meredith Devendorf said.
After the lengthy discussion, Tommy Long, who facilitated the meeting, asked that anyone willing to serve on the committee come forward.
The committee is expected to request for the right to speak at a board of commissioners’ meeting.
Brown said he is pleased a committee was formed and looks forward to working with them to resolve the issues and answer questions.